Rare lesser whitefronted geese are tracked from Norway to Flanders fields, via Suffolk marshes

Lesser whitefronted geese

Lesser whitefronted geese - Credit: Archant

Birdwatchers have been on a wild goose chase with a difference on coastal marshes in Suffolk - one that involves space-age communication techniques, international co-operation and urgent conservation efforts to save a perilously endangered species.

Lesser whitefronted geese

Lesser whitefronted geese - Credit: Archant

The saga of the rare young lesser whitefronted geese that crossed the North Sea, sojourned in Suffolk and are now grazing the fields of Belgium has enthralled scores of ornithologists in the county and across Europe.

It began with an email to RSPB Minsmere from the Swedish Lesser Whitefronted Goose Project, a scheme in which lesser whitefronted geese are being reared in captivity and released into the wild in a bid to boost the species’ dramatically declining Scandinavian population.

RSPB staff were told that a lesser whitefront fitted with one of the project’s satellite transmitters had been tracked to Minsmere after having flown in from Norway.

The news was surprising as the bird had not been reported by any RSPB staff members of any of the numerous visitors who flocked to famous nature reserve over the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

A goose pen in Sweden

A goose pen in Sweden - Credit: Archant

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Searches of the reserve were unsuccessful but the bird was then discovered feeding at the RSPB’s nearby North Warren reserve, between Thorpeness and Aldeburgh, by RSPB staff member David Fairhurst - and it was with three others.

The group caused a stir among admiring birders fascinated by the event which combines hi-tech “cyber-birding” with old-fashioned fieldwork.

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After also spending time at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hazelwood Marshes reserve beside the River Alde and across the river on Sudbourne Marshes, global positioning signals showed the birds had flown out over Orfordness and were last recorded near Jabbeke, between Brussels and Ostend, in Flanders.

Swedish project co-ordinator Dr Niklas Liljebäck told RSPB staff: “All the birds are offspring from wild-caught lesser whitefronted goose parents caught in a breeding area north of the Ural Mountains. All of the birds in the flock were released on August 1 in the breeding area of the wild lesser whitefronts in Swedish Lapland.”

An adult lesser whitefronted goose in Sweden

An adult lesser whitefronted goose in Sweden - Credit: Archant

The group lost contact with others of their kind and visited the Norwegian coast before heading out across the North Sea.

“The flock contains birds of three different broods and the constellation of sexes makes this flock highly interesting for us,” said Dr Liljebäck. “If they are able to come back to the breeding area in Sweden they may become a valuable recruitment to the wild population.”

The region of Belgium where the birds were now located - a well-known “hotspot” for wintering geese, was only 45km from Oudeland van Strijen in the Netherlands where at least 25 wild lesser whitefronted geese were present. “We keep all fingers crossed that they will meet,” he said.

Dr Liljebäck added: “This was these birds’ first migration which ‘by the book’ means that they are learning their migration route - however birds rarely care about our books. So now they know the way to Minsmere and may come back with offspring in a couple of years.

Lesser whitefrotned geese at a Swedish breeding station - part of a satellite trackign device can be

Lesser whitefrotned geese at a Swedish breeding station - part of a satellite trackign device can be seen on one of the birds - Credit: Archant

“From my colleagues who have had the privilege to have visited Minsmere, I understand that the birds could not have chosen a better place to take a break.”

Mr Fairhurst described the saga as a “fantastic event”.

He had discovered the celebrated visitors in an area of the RSPB’s North Warren nature reserve that was a “magnet” for various species of geese due to its rich diversity of grasses that provided vital grazing and, therefore, winter sustenance.

The lesser whitefronted geese had been in the company of many of their larger, more numerous cousins, Eurasian whitefronted geese which originate from western Russia, and several tundra bean geese - which were themselves scarce visitors to the UK and for which the site was especially noted.

Minsmere site manager Adam Rowlands said that when the birds were present there they had fed on an area that was difficult to see. They had also roosted on the reserve’s famous Scrape, but had probably moved there after darkness had fallen.

“With technological improvements and devices becoming cheaper, more transmitters are being fitted to birds and so the unseen but satellite-tracked movements of birds is a phenomenon that will probably increase,” he said. “While it was very nice that these birds chose to make landfall at Minsmere and use other nature reserves nearby as safe havens they did use other areas too and that reinforces the fact that the wider landscape is hugely valuable to wildlife too.”

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